Whoa! How ‘Back to the Future: The Musical’ Reinvented Its Iconic DeLorean for the Stage

‘Back to the Future’ just wouldn't be ‘Back to the Future’ without its DeLorean.

Roger Bart and Casey Likes star in 'Back to the Future: The Musical' on Broadway.
Roger Bart and Casey Likes star in 'Back to the Future: The Musical' on Broadway. / Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Satisfyingly familiar yet bursting with fresh spectacle: finding a balance that achieved both was the challenge Back to the Future: The Musical’s creative team tackled when adapting the beloved 1985 film for the stage.

“We have to somehow take all the most important things [from the movie] for the fans but then also deliver a theatrical musical experience on top of that,” the show’s designer, Tim Hatley, tells Mental Floss.

Back to Back to the Future

Back to the Future: The Musical opened on Broadway in August 2023, following the 2022 premiere of a production that continues to run in London, and a pre-West End trial in Manchester. The show will hit the road this summer for a North American tour.

Now, after The Phantom of the Opera closed following its record-breaking 35-year run on Broadway—with its iconic, massive chandelier rising and falling one last time on April 16, 2023—Back to the Future: The Musical is the show that’s delivering what may currently be Broadway’s most awe-inspiring set piece: the time-traveling DeLorean.

Hatley, who led both the costume and set design teams for the musical, recalled that when he started his career, Broadway and West End shows that loomed large in his inspiration were productions with set pieces that were, well, large and spectacular, like Maria Björnson’s work on Phantom of the Opera and John Napier’s set design for Miss Saigon, which wowed audiences with its onstage helicopter.

Back to the Future: The Musical’s near-life-size DeLorean makes its first dramatic entrance partway through Act 1, prompting a roar of audience cheers as it swerves onto the stage. But some of the most impressive feats of the DeLorean come when a fusion of video screens and more traditional set pieces create the climax when Marty’s trying to get back home to 1985.

“The design sort of crescendos so we don’t pull our best trick at the beginning,” Hatley says. “The final 25 minutes is our pinnacle. I’ve always felt like you want to finish this show like you’ve been on a bit of a roller coaster—a bit of fun escapism, a bit silly.”

Tonally, the musical is “walking that tightrope of trying to be funny and having a lot of heart and at the same time really wanting to deliver the truth and the drama that is this boy getting caught in this nightmare in this town in 1955,” director John Rando explains. Hatley’s roller coaster analogy is also appropriate given that one of Rando’s first inspirations for the look and feel of the stage adaptation came from a theme park ride: Shanghai Disneyland’s Tron Lightcycle Power Run.

“It was really immersive, even before you get on the ride,” Rando tells Mental Floss.

Finding the Future

Experiencing that Tron: Legacy-themed ride while developing the musical—along with reflecting back on the opening of the (since closed) Back to the Future ride in Universal Studios Hollywood at the time he was in UCLA’s graduate directing program—led Rando to work with Hatley to make the show’s audience feel like they’re inside a time machine.

Casey Likes in ‘Back to the Future: The Musical.’
Casey Likes in ‘Back to the Future: The Musical.’ / Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Lighting that looks like a circuit board spills out of the theater’s proscenium arch and into the house, first lit all in blue and then igniting into various colors for the first song of Act 2, titled “21st Century,” when Doc Brown of 1955 gleefully muses on what the future will be like.

“[That song] is Doc’s crazy imagination, and that’s when we thought, ‘Oh, this would be a great moment to show that the entire theater is like a time machine,’” Rando says.

Some biological science is also behind the circuit board lighting’s function in the show: Its bright lights that spill out into the auditorium cause audience members’ pupils to get smaller. Hatley said this helps hide the upstage mechanics that make possible the DeLorean’s most impressive moments.

Hatley came aboard Back to the Future: The Musical with years of experience adapting films to the stage, acknowledging that we’re seeing more and more popular movies turned into Broadway productions because “it’s such a high-risk business, such an expensive business producers feel safer with a title that’s known.”

Even with such successful adaptations as Shrek the Musical and Spamalot on his resume, Hatley says, with Back to the Future, “I’ve never had so many messages and comments from members of the public who are genuinely blown away by what we’ve achieved. And that moves me.”

Fans’ messages came pouring in for the musical’s creators ahead of its opening, too—but at that time, it was to criticize the first promotional image released for the show.

“We got some things wrong,” admits Hatley, who supervised the costumes for that photoshoot. “We weren’t particularly accurate with the jeans, the cut was not quite the same, and I think the shoes were wrong. And we were called out within hours of that photo being released. And that, to me, was a warning sign that there are a lot of eyes on this. And you’ve got to make the choice whether you go faithful to the film and you tick all those boxes or you ignore it and you just go ‘doesn’t matter, we’re just gonna do what we want to do.’”

Ultimately, the show’s designers went the direction of meticulously recreating many looks from the film, from the furnishings of Doc’s 1950s home to the decor at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance to costume pieces across the whole show. The costume team even printed fabric for the distinct, wild patterns of Doc’s shirts that he loans Marty in 1955.

On the flip side, some critics—especially those reviewing it for American publications—have knocked the show for being too faithful to its source material. Rando acknowledges it’s “impossible” to please everyone when finding the balance between the new and the familiar in an adaptation.

The Power of Love

So the show will continue to deliver its recreations of the memorable looks of the film—including Easter eggs like the Monument Valley shooting location from Back to the Future: Part III and a nod to the single release artwork for Huey Lewis’ “The Power of Love”—with tickets for Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre currently on sale through December 1, 2024.

Casey Likes in  ‘Back to the Future: The Musical.’
Casey Likes in ‘Back to the Future: The Musical.’ / Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

The next challenge for Back to the Future: The Musical’s creative team is to get the musical ready to hit the road, where they’ll need to make all of the production’s stage magic work in theaters of various shapes and sizes.

Hatley says the show on tour will look largely the same to the audience as it does on Broadway, but “one thing that will be hugely different is the show the audience does not see.” How the show is packed backstage will need to be adjusted depending on whether a theater has more storage space stage right or stage left, for example.

Most importantly, Hatley said, “We cannot do it without a DeLorean, so our priority is getting our car to be as fantastic as it is in the Winter Garden, and the good news is it’s gonna be spectacular. We’re not cutting any corners there whatsoever.”

Back to the Future: The Musical’s North American tour is currently set to kick off in Schenectady, New York, on June 6 and finish up in Toronto in August 2025. Cleveland, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. are among its planned stops.

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